Read Tough Love Online

Authors: Heidi Cullinan

Tough Love (4 page)

Chenco left as much prep as he could to the private bathroom in the back of the club, but a great deal of getting ready simply wasn’t logistically possible anywhere but at home. He waxed, but there would always be some shaving, generally in areas delicate enough on their own merits, let alone adding in acrobatics over a small and sagging sink.

Then there was the problem of makeup and hair. To complete his transformation on site, he’d need a minimum of two giant plastic tubs full of materials. Time was also an issue. He wasn’t the only one trying to use the club bathroom, and Chenco’s eyebrows alone took him forty-five minutes when he was at home with plenty of space and had JLo playing in the background.

It wouldn’t be so bad if Caramela wasn’t glam. She wanted to be the Queen of Queens, which meant she had to have the best, and getting the job done right demanded hours upon hours of work—and money. Parton liked to say it cost a lot of money to look that cheap. Whatever the dollar amount was, it couldn’t come close to keeping a queen. Makeup. Costumes. Compression garments, breast forms, shoes, padded panties and enough body glitter to choke a Westboro Baptist.

And hair.
Jesus
, the fucking hair. It was Caramela’s weakness—she had to put it on before leaving the house, which meant Chenco had to hide it. Which meant he had to squash it, which made Caramela threaten to shove her stilettos into dangerous places. Their Gaza Strip was the long walk to the Nova from the house. Caramela wanted to be out and proud, and Chenco wanted to keep his teeth and his brain matter in their proper places. His neighborhood made crack dens look like Boy Scout meetings. Their peace treaty was a plastic hairnet like the old ladies wore strapped under a hoodie. It went on in the trailer and came off in the parking lot behind the empty Blockbuster Video three blocks from the highway.

Tonight Caramela didn’t berate him for squashing her hair. Sensing Chenco’s nerves, feeling plenty of her own, she forewent their usual tussle and invited him to focus on the careful application of liner and fake lashes, to let becoming beautiful erase his weariness.

She emerged like a sunrise, claiming his already pretty features and making them runway-worthy. His nose became a perfect slope toward his plump, raisin-colored lips. His cheekbones were lifted and defined, with shading which begged for those soft lips to be admired. The eyes, though—even Heide crooned over Caramela’s brows. They were works of art, taking thick Latin caterpillars and taming them into fine, delicate lines—not penciled, not ruthlessly plucked so he had feminine brows when he went out as a man. The other queens all wanted to know how he did it.

With a hell of a lot of swearing, seriously sore arms, and the magic combo of a watercolor brush and a washable glue stick. That was how.

Once Caramela’s face was on, Chenco felt better. As he tugged on the evening’s wig—eighteen inches of dyed auburn, real human hair—Caramela slipped over the last of his skin. Smiling at herself in the mirror, she touched the underside of her locks, slid her hand to her faux breast and gripped it hard as she bared her teeth.


Chica
. You are so fabulous, they’re all gonna cry.”

Spinning elegantly toward the stereo, she cued up her favorite remix, cocked her hip a few times to the opening bass and went to work.

She sang along with JLo, communing with her goddess and the center of her soul as she selected her wardrobe. Chenco felt uneasy, so she’d give him something fierce, something to make everyone shocked and off balance, to give her space to remind him how powerful she was on the floor, how one hour of drag could right a year of wrongs in his life. This meant sequins and glitter. She selected the faux-chain-mail dress which made her look nearly naked—thank God he shaved his junk, as this outfit cut a bit close to the Spanx.

Heide had allowed the loan of the dice shoes with a promise Caramela return them without a single scratch. They went into the bag to be put on in the parking lot. The only real question remaining was jewelry. The nested silver hoops were obvious for earrings, but what necklace? What bracelets?

The silver-blue bands reminiscent of Wonder Woman’s Bracelets of Victory caught her attention and went immediately onto her wrists.
That’s right, hookers, I can deflect anything you shoot at me, even you, Daddy.
Speaking of Cooper—she smiled as she selected the antique pewter trefoil knot Chenco had rescued long ago from the back drawer of Cooper’s dresser. Armor chosen, donned and ready.

Ready but packed, at least as far as the shoes went, Caramela zipped the bag, her gaze falling on the drawstring sweats and hoodie.

With a grimace, she reached for the plastic rain hat. She fucking hated this part.

 

 

In the end Steve did have to hack to find Chenco. He asked local funeral directors about any twenty-four-year-olds who’d recently buried their fathers, but none would readily give out any information, not even when Steve asked nicely in Spanish. He should have let it go, but he hadn’t been able to get the kid’s look of betrayal out of his head.

Randy helped him search. They kept their project from Mitch, because he had enough going on right now.

Steve’s longtime friend had come back to the valley for his asshole father’s funeral, but out of some strange nostalgia he’d lingered well past his original reason for coming. Steve knew Mitch was putting things to rest, closing a circle. That his once-stoic friend would so much as consider working through his old shit was huge, and Steve credited the change to Mitch’s husband. Every time Mitch came back raw from a trip down memory lane, one smile from his husband seemed to help Mitch reclaim another piece of himself.

Chenco didn’t have anyone to level him. Steve wanted to change that.

Hacking didn’t take long, and though he couldn’t come up with a mailing address, just a post office box in Donna, Steve did learn Chenco held two jobs, one at a local fast food chain and one at a glitzy gay bar called Club 33. Randy had sniggered at the name.

“Man, that’s an old one. Thirty-three?” When Steve continued to stare at him, still not comprehending, Randy pulled out a piece of paper and drew two number threes beside each other. “Look at those two numbers next to one another and think like a dirty-minded, gay twelve-year-old boy. Two asses lined up for buttsex. If you want to go all Escher, the middle of the second three can double as an itty bitty penis.”

Steve rolled his eyes, but he couldn’t help a little grin too. Yeah, now that Jansen pointed it out, the two numbers did look like a couple of butts. This didn’t help them find Chenco, however.

After their lack of headway with Chenco’s other contacts, Steve and Randy decided to pay the club a visit and inquire directly rather than risk anything on the phone. Confronting him at a bar seemed easier than a fast food restaurant and also more fun.

They brought Mitch and Sam along because when Sam heard where they were going, he declared it the perfect way to spend their anniversary. Ten minutes inside 33, Sam started swinging his hips to the beat, smiling slyly at Mitch and dragging him onto the floor with sultry promise.

Randy cast the pair a longing look, but he let them go and went off with Steve to search. It got them nowhere. Chenco wasn’t anywhere to be found.

“It’s still early,” Randy pointed out. “Maybe he’s not here yet.”

“Possible.” Steve rubbed his goatee and frowned at the dance floor, trying to think. It was hard with all the damn club music.

Randy indicated the far side of the room. “Why don’t I go flirt with the bartender, see what I can wheedle out of him?”

Not having any better ideas, Steve nodded his agreement and went back to scanning the crowd for Chenco, just in case.

There were quite a few patrons present for as early as it was in the evening, but a poster on the wall near him proclaimed a drag show was coming up at ten, so perhaps it’d be a draw.

Everyone seemed so young. Steve had a hard time believing they were old enough to drive, let alone consume alcohol. No doubt they wondered what Grandpa was doing glowering at them. Steve tried to imagine what he’d done on a Friday night at their age, but of course the analogy didn’t hold. At nineteen, he was in the Persian Gulf. When he got home, there was no Club 33. Even at Stanford, he hadn’t gone to a club like this, though there might have been a small one somewhere. His hookups had happened at the gay video store and the biker bar on the edge of town, or with Gordy. Discretion was the name of the game.

Looking out at the sea of rainbow-colored hair, raunchy clothes and open groping on the dance floor, Steve had to admit every now and again he missed discretion.

Drag queens, though. Steve turned back to the poster. Drag queens were familiar turf. He had zero interest in putting on a dress himself, but there was something about watching a man put on a wig and heels and work a floor under punishing stage lights. Nothing said
screw you, gender stereotypes
like a queen. Drag was a man doing what society said emasculated him and yet making the act about power, control, upending of norms. Steve loved it. If they didn’t find Chenco, he thought he might stick around to see how the game had changed since the last time he’d been to a show.

Caramela
, the playbill read.
The Rio Grande Valley’s Own Superstar!
She was certainly gorgeous, and slightly familiar. He was still examining the poster when Randy came up to him.

“Holy shit, Monk. You aren’t gonna believe this.” He laughed. “Well, goddamn. You beat me to it. Here I thought I was gonna blow your mind.”

Steve frowned at him. “Beat you to what?”

“I found Chenco. He’ll be here later. Except you found him too. Look a little harder at the poster.”

Steve grimaced at Jansen before turning back to the advertisement for Caramela. He scanned it for Chenco’s name, but he didn’t see it anywhere. Then something in his subconscious prickled, and he dragged his gaze to the drag queen’s face. “Holy shit.”

“Exactly.” Randy tapped the poster. “About an hour and a half until show time. You want a drink to fortify you? I figure we can’t jump him until after, anyway.”

Steve stared at Caramela, who melted all too easily into Chenco Ortiz’s pretty, sensual face. “Yeah, I’ll take a drink.”

“I’ll grab you a Bohemia.” Randy disappeared toward the bar.

Steve resumed staring at Caramela/Chenco. When Randy returned, he handed Steve his bottle with an
I’ve been thinking
expression on his face. “I flirted a little harder with the bartender when I got the drinks. Guess where Chenco’s from? Donna. His trailer is in the flats.”

Mitch’s father had lived there. “He should be glad to be rid of the fucking thing, then. The flats are a toxic waste dump.”

Randy tapped his fingers against the label of his bottle. “Something really obvious is right in front of our noses. After his show, we’re going to sit Chenco down at the bar and figure this out. He’s got no reason to run from me, or you, and if nothing else, the kid could use some new friends.”

Admiring the poster one last time, Steve nodded his agreement, thinking it sounded like as good a plan as any.

Chapter Three

Caramela crossed the parking lot at eight forty-five, swinging her jeweled Gucci clutch as she covered the distance between the Nova and the club in powerful strides. It made her cringe that people had to see her climb out of the piece-of-shit vehicle.
Work those tips, honey, and you’ll get your BMW.


Caramela,
” random strangers cried out, waving and laughing and blowing her kisses. She blew them back with a saucy wink and a delicate flash of her gloved hands. The security guy at the door welcomed her, telling her she was a precious, beautiful angel in Spanish. She was pretty sure that’s what he said. She tossed him a
gracias
and thanked God she didn’t need to fumble any further in the language.

Caramela wove her way through the throng, declining drinks and cigarettes but bestowing several flirtatious touches on her more besotted admirers. With a final wave and a promise to see them in an hour, she disappeared into the employee area of the club.

Booker lounged on the saggy green sofa in the break room, but when he saw Caramela, he rose and opened his thick brown arms to her. “
Honey.
You’re gonna kill them dead.”

“That’s the idea.” Caramela checked her reflection in the mirror, making sure she’d truly caught all the damn hoodie fallout in the Nova’s rearview. “Good crowd out there.”

“Yes it is.” He sank into the couch, propping booted feet on a chair. “What’s the lineup?”

Caramela obsessed over a lock of hair wanting to angle out instead of in.
Fucking. Hoodie.
“Let’s open with ‘Waiting For Tonight’.”

He tucked his hands behind his head. “Smooth entrance. Okay. I’ll set up some blue and purple gels. Disco ball?”

She paused, considering. “No. Well—play it by ear. Slow and steady spin, if you go for it.”

“Of course, baby. What’s next?”

“I want to step away from JLo for the second number, but not far, and just the once.”

Booker considered this. “What about ‘
Puakenikeni
’?”

Caramela wrinkled her nose then shook her head. “Close, but no. Not Rowland either, not tonight. It might have to be Nelly.”

“Then may I respectfully submit ‘Maneater’ because it makes me fucking wet.”

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